Symbolism Essay


(Updated on September 27, 2019)

A symbolism essay is one that is commonly assigned in high school and college literature courses.  Symbolism essays require the writer to analyze the many levels of symbolism in a text.  A symbol is, in essence, an object or person who stands for or represents something else.  For instance, a cross stands for Christianity.  In literature, symbolism is rarely this simple.  Literary symbols are more nuanced and less obvious.  This is why literary symbolism is often worthy of literary essays: it's complex.  Often, a literary symbol can be interpreted in multiple ways.  Therefore, the task of a writer of a symbolism essay is to identify in what way or ways that symbol can be interpreted, use text-focused evidence to convince the reader of the validity of that interpretation, and then discuss what the symbols mean in both the context of the story and outside the context of the story.

Symbolism EssaySymbolism reports should begin by identifying the symbol or symbols present in the text, or, if there are many symbols, the symbol or symbols on which the writer will focus.  Next, it should discuss why the author of the text uses these symbols.  It is important to suggest the reason for the inclusion of symbols, because if the writer didn't have a particular objective in using symbolism, then perhaps that symbolism is only in the mind of the reader.  After identifying the symbols and the purpose of using those symbols, symbolism essays must present text-focused discussions indicating why the writer believes the symbol to be a symbol, and what the writer believes the symbol to reflect.  Again, this discussion must be rooted in textual analysis; otherwise, it may seem that the writer is simply reading what he/she wishes to read in the text, rather than what is there.

Following an extensive text-focused discussion of what the symbol indicates in the context of the text, it may be appropriate for the writer to suggest what the symbol indicates outside the context of the text, i.e., what the symbol suggests about the text's theme.  Sometimes, literary symbols are only pertinent within their context, but often, literary symbols are meant to be interpreted as representations of people, ideas, or other entities in life.  One can understand this application of symbolism by thinking about classic fables or fairy tales.  Take, for instance, the popular story recounting the race between a tortoise and a hare.  In this story, the tortoise, who is expected to lose the race because he/she is so slow, actually wins because he/she diligently applies himself/herself and stays focused on the race.  The faster hare loses because he/she is overly confident in his/her own abilities and therefore doesn't take the competition seriously.  One of the themes of this story is that diligence and focus trump natural ability.  In this story, the tortoise is a symbol for hard-working people who perhaps have inferior circumstances or talents when compared to others.  The tortoise is the quintessential underdog.  The hare represents people who are cocky about their abilities and therefore underestimate their competition.  This is a very basic example, but one that illustrates the way in which literary symbols go beyond the story to inform us about the theme of the story.  Every symbolism essay must discuss theme, as symbols are always related to a text's theme.

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